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How Billy Porter's journey led to 'Pose' and his upcoming directorial debut, 'What If'

Joshua Axelrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Entertainment News

PITTSBURGH — The coming weeks will see the culmination of a journey Billy Porter began in 1994.

Back then, the 51-year-old Pittsburgh native was living in New York City and playing Teen Angel in the Broadway revival of "Grease" "with 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head stomping around like a Little Richard automaton on crack," he said in a phone interview last week.

During that period, Porter caught part one of Tony Kushner's two-part play "Angels in America" and immediately connected with the character of Belize, a Black, gay, ex-drag queen who became a nurse on an AIDS ward floor. He realized Belize was "a representation that I had never seen before" and he vowed to do that kind of work going forward.

He's fulfilled that goal many times over, including in 2010 when he played Belize in Signature Theatre Company's 20th-anniversary production of "Angels in America"; in 2013 when he originated the role of Lola in "Kinky Boots," for which he won the Tony for best actor in musical; and his role as ballroom MC Pray Tell in the FX series "Pose," which returned Sunday for its third and final season.

"The journey I've made since 1994 to flipping the trajectory of my life to watching this final season of 'Pose' is my evolution of speaking that into the universe and manifesting that for myself," Porter said. "All these years later, everybody sees what I manifested for myself on that day."

"Pose" shines a spotlight on New York City's Black and LGBTQ+ ballroom culture in the 1980s and '90s. It zeroes in on a few specific figures, like the makeshift family led by matriarch Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Porter's Pray Tell, a larger-than-life figure. The specter of the HIV/AIDS crisis looms over everyone as the then-mysterious disease ravages the community.

 

Co-creator Steven Canals announced in early March that the show's seven-episode third season would be its last "because we reached the intended ending of our story," he said. Porter, who won the 2019 best actor in a drama Emmy for his performance, says playing the character has been a privilege.

"I feel so blessed to have lived long enough to see the day when a show like this, a character like this could exist," he said. "When I got into the business, it was an impossibility for something like this. It's just beautiful and lovely, and to have been chosen to be a part of it, to be able to tell a story of a time period I actually lived through and really create a space for an entire generation to heal is a really powerful thing. That's what I've always wanted to do and be with my art."

He's gratified that shows like HBO Max's "It's A Sin" have picked up where "Pose" is leaving off in terms of telling stories about the vibrancy of LGBTQ+ communities everywhere and just how terrifying AIDS was and still is for them.

Porter had a lot to say about "Pose" coming back as anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ+ violence remains prevalent, as does legislation targeting those groups.

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